Yielding Seed After His Kind

by Harold Schrock | Nov 1, 2023 | 0 comments

I like seed catalogs! There are few pastimes more pleasurable in a January snowstorm than to curl up in front of the wood stove with a steaming mug and a stack of seed catalogs. Of course, seed companies seldom show the seeds they sell; rather, they show photos and give descriptions of the expected end results. Beautiful, blemish-free fruits and vegetables and gorgeous flowers adorn the pages of many catalogs, calling to mind a hunger for fresh food and providing dreams for our future gardening endeavors.

With all the choices, it is no wonder that a significant amount of the seed purchased by home gardeners never gets planted. This may not be as wasteful as it seems on first thought. The seed sold by most vendors is not always prime quality and will benefit from some additional sorting by the end user. This is not a condemnation of retail seed businesses; in most cases, they have little choice about the seed they sell. The vast majority of the seeds are harvested and sold wholesale by large corporations. Many retail seed vendors grow no seed themselves. Even the ones who do seldom have more than a small percentage of their offerings grown “in house.” In the seed business, the highest quality seed is retained by the company for future seed production. This is necessary for genetic integrity. The second highest quality is reserved for large commercial growers that have direct business connections with the seed producers. Whatever is left is provided to retailers for the home garden and small commercial market.

So what makes a quality seed? There are many variations in seed sizes, germination times, preferred germination temperatures, and other factors. However, we can make a few general comments that will apply to most if not all.

Quality seed will be relatively large; the best seed in any batch will usually be the largest. Think about it. Baby plants depend on the seed for food until they emerge from the soil and start photosynthesizing. Larger seeds simply supply more food.

Another quality point may be even more important than size. Density is a factor in identifying quality in most living organisms, including seeds. Soaking is one simple step that should be taken to ready most seeds for planting. About four hours before planting seeds, place them in warm water. Seeds that tend to stick together, such as tomatoes, should be gently separated. Stir the water gently so smaller seeds are not caught in the surface tension. Then remove all floaters; seeds that don’t settle to the bottom will generally be of inferior quality and aren’t worth planting.

Soaking seeds will speed up their germination and help plants to a robust start. Of course, only soak the amount of seed that you will plant immediately after soaking. To make the seed easier to handle, especially with mechanical seeders, it is acceptable to allow the seed to dry a bit before planting, but the seed is no longer fit for long-term storage.

Seed quality differences are one reason I like to seed many crops in a greenhouse and transplant into larger containers and then the garden. I like to plant considerably more seeds than I want plants for my garden. The largest and healthiest plants that germinate are quite likely to maintain that advantage throughout their lives.

In home gardens where space is more limiting than time, it can be advantageous to plant a higher-than-recommended rate when direct seeding and allow for thinning out the smaller plants. Just don’t neglect that step. It can be easy to allow plants to be crowded, whether the too-dense planting was accidental or on purpose. You really need to be ruthless in plant thinning. Get the plant spacing up to the recommendations given in the seed catalog or another knowledgeable source. It is usually better to err on the side of more space; just like animals and people, plants become stressed when crowded.

What are some other factors when choosing our seed purchases? I believe diversity is one of the keys to success. We should always plant some tried and proven varieties that did well for us in the past. If you are new to gardening, perhaps ask your neighbors for recommendations. Most gardeners enjoy sharing their top picks! Also, every year most people will enjoy trying something new or different. After all, isn’t that part of the seed catalog appeal? In my opinion, having a few plants of many different varieties is the most enjoyable way to garden. This is true for the home gardener; the small-to-midsize commercial grower may have to rein in the fun a bit. Too many varieties cut into time efficiency for people who make their living by gardening.

Many crops give you the choice of hybrid and open-pollinated seed. Which is better? The answer is simple—”It depends.” It depends on the goals of the grower. Do you want maximum production with the least amount of effort? Probably a hybrid will be what you want. Are flavor and maximum nutrition your primary goals? You likely should check out some open-pollinated varieties. Do you have marginal soils or soils that harbor known diseases? Choose a hybrid with known resistance to the disease pressure, when possible. Do you have a great garden with good organic matter cycling and low weed pressure? If so, you are definitely in a position to try some heirlooms. In the right conditions, they can out-perform hybrids, even in yields. Are you interested in saving your own seed? Here there is no choice. To save seed, you should start with an open-pollinated crop. Seed from hybrids can be planted, but the chances of getting anything you will want to continue are very slim.

If you find an open-pollinated variety that you like, consider saving seed to replant instead of purchasing every year. Open-pollinated varieties can often be improved for a local area by saving seed grown in that area. An important consideration in saving seed is that you avoid cross-pollination by a different variety of the same species, unless you are purposefully trying to create a new hybrid. Consult a book on seed saving for more information. If you have more than one variety of the same species, there are techniques for bagging flowers and hand pollinating that will assure genetic purity. For many crops, this will be necessary unless you live in the wilds with no near neighbors. Crops can be pollinated from as far away as a mile.

Some people believe that an open-pollinated or heirloom variety will be more nutritious or have a better flavor than hybrids. While this is possible and may often be the case, it is not necessarily true in every situation. What is true is the limitation that all plants have genetically. Anytime we select for a desired quality or trait, it comes at the expense of something else. Most things crop breeders select for have to do with yield, flavor, or disease resistance, and those are almost always changes in the way the plant metabolizes certain nutrients.

Nutrition is more important than genetics. A major problem in farming and gardening today is created when scientists breed resistance to diseases that are normally nutritional deficiencies. This allows crops to grow that have less nutrition for the consumer than what the Creator intended. The worst of this science involves genetic engineering and moving genes between species. GMO technology is controversial for a good reason. At best, it is not needed, and at worst, it could be dangerous. Mankind is a long way from knowing enough about life processes to think we can safely improve on the information God provided to plants in the beginning. Fortunately, there are not many GMO varieties in the vegetable world, and most seed catalogs offer none. God created all the genetic information necessary in the beginning for an incredible variety in our gardens. Enjoy!

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